When you’re in Iceland and the sun starts to come up at 2:30am, there’s really no choice: you have to get a hot dog.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back. I flew to Iceland last week to attend EVE FanFest 2013, an annual gathering sponsored by the Reykjavik-based CCP Games, developer of EVE Online, Dust 514, and the in-development vampire MMORPG World of Darkness. For three days, dedicated fans get a chance to hear from – and talk to – key players at CCP. The result is a spirited back-and-forth that informs as much as it guides the course of the studio’s development efforts in the year that follows.
You’ve likely been seeing coverage from the event popping up throughout last week and into the weekend on Digital Trends, and there’s plenty more to come. I’m taking a moment today to offer you a firsthand account of my time spent in Iceland, surrounded by EVE fans. They’re a friendly bunch; I don’t know an awful lot about how EVE plays, but I appreciate their love of the minutiae. And their love for Icelandic hot dogs.
Day One: Failure to launch
A travel mishap leaves me stranded in New York City for the first day of FanFest. Rather than sit and sulk in a corner over the unfortunate turn of events, I elect to make the most of the situation and keep up with the first day’s proceedings remotely. The 2013 edition of EVE FanFest hosted a sold-out crowd of 1,400, but there are more than 500,000 EVE players worldwide. The 490,000-odd capsuleers who stay at home can keep up with the talks on CCP’s Twitch feed, so that’s where I turn.
Iceland is four hours ahead of New York, and the day had already started in Reykjavik by the time I tune in. An intense discussion of ship balancing tweaks in the upcoming Odyssey expansion is already underway, though I don’t think that my catching it from the beginning would have helped. The reveals that elicit cheers and boos from the gathered crowd fly completely over my untrained head, in the same way that eyes tend to glaze over when hardcore sports or car enthusiasts geek out over their respective hobbies.
The Twitch chat feed is similarly unintelligible, but it at least amounts to an ongoing log that I can flip through at my leisure. I pick up on the passion that this crowd has for the game. Micro-level changes ripple through the community as fans debate over balance tweaks to a single ship’s upgrade slots and core capabilities. The feed also offers a sense of the appreciation in the community for the people behind the game, as evidenced in one contingent cheering along a CCP newcomer’s first stage appearance, or in the abundance of emoticons rendered as thumbnailed heads of key people at the company.
A later talk features Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar Travel, speaking on the subject of his ongoing faster-than-light travel research. It is part of a new track for this year’s festivities called “Make EVE Real.” The jargon-heavy science talk again helps me understand the sort of people that flock to EVE Online. Obousy’s technical explanations breed informed discussion in the Twitch feed; for every 10 fans that express confusion, there are a couple to step up and explain things.
What strikes me most was how civil it all is. Chat rooms with some connection to video games tend to be populated by at least a small handful of troublemakers and trolls. That isn’t the case in the Twitch chat. The few times someone says something that could be construed as hateful or ignorant, one or more nvariably step up and politely let the person know that they might be offending someone.
I play a lot of Call of Duty and other multiplayer shooters. I am also paid to share my opinions in places where people can comment on them anonymously. In both cases, I am frequently a subjected to all manner of despicable behavior. This remarkable phenomenon of people actually being polite to one another on the Internet when they don’t necessarily have to be catches me off guard. It also leaves me excited for what I will find when I eventually got to Iceland the next day.
Before we get to that, let me just add: it’s not that every commenter in the Twitch feed acts in harmony. On the contrary, the discussions around one change or another often become quite heated. What’s impressive is that these fans always manage to stick to the subject at hand, rather than resorting to the personal attacks that you typically encounter on the Internet.
Day Two: Excitement conquers all, even jet lag
One full day and a redeye flight across the Atlantic later finds me safely on the ground in Iceland and ready to tackle day two of FanFest in the flesh. First, a bit about the country. Iceland is beautiful in a very minimal sort of way. The airport is in a desolate region, to the point that it almost looks like you’re landing on the moon as you fly in. This harsh environment is a product of the island nation’s subarctic location and an abundance of local volcanoes. It’s a strikingly beautiful no man’s land.
Then there’s Reykjavik, which has an unusually small-town feel for a nation’s capital. Iceland’s population hovers around the 300,000 mark, and roughly two-thirds of it is centered in and around the capital city. The winding, cobblestone streets and colorful, oddly shaped buildings speak to the sort of history that you just don’t see very often in the United States. The craziest aspect of the city, however, is the impact that CCP’s annual gathering has on it.
EVE signage is absolutely everywhere in the downtown area near the Harpa concert hall, where FanFest takes place. Bars fill entire windows with logos and posters. Signs are hung on poles and walls all around the city. Storekeepers, bartenders, and random passers-by stop and ask you how the event is going. CCP is kind of a big deal in this city.
Day two of FanFest for me involves a lot of running around and half-finished talks. I attend one on Dust 514‘s new Planetary Conquest, a mode coming in the Uprising expansion that offers players an opportunity to leave more of a lasting mark on both the EVE and Dust sides of New Eden. Corporations will be able to take control of full districts on the surface of certain low sec planets with the help of mercs in the PS3 shooter. Yet again, I see the same sort of civilized discussion that characterized the Twitch chatter play out in front of me during the post-talk Q&A.
The line of people waiting to ask questions includes everyone from dedicated Dust fans who just want to shoot stuff to wary EVE CEOs with worries over how the new mode will impact their company’s place in New Eden. Some queries are more pointed than others – again, with most of the fine details flying right over my head – but it never verges into hostile territory. It’s more a situation of players expressing concern over how one change or another might impact the hundreds or thousands of hours they’ve already invested in EVE.
The rest of the day unfolds as a gauntlet of hastily arranged interviews interrupt one talk or another. I once again get a sense of how CCP operates at FanFest. This event is all about putting the fans first; the developers definitely go out of their way to make time to chat with attending media, but the feeling falls closer to what it must be like to report on a political summit. Reporters are there in the mix, but the real action is happening in small rooms where roundtable chats bring in more focused fan feedback than even post-talk Q&As are capable of.
The day ends with a massive pub crawl that sees the 1,400 attendees split up into 20+ separate groups that tour through Reykjavik’s many bars with CCP developers leading the way. I end up joining with a small group of colleagues in the U.S. press, and we wander together around the city taking it all in. We’re not officially participating in the pub crawl, but we see evidence of it spilling onto every sidewalk that we stroll along.
This is also the night that I meet my first Icelandic hot dog, a delicious concoction topped with ketchup, fried onion, raw onion, and a mayo-based remoulade. You might not believe it, but hot dogs are big stuff in Iceland. There is one stand in particular, Bæjarins beztu pylsur, that is widely considered to be the best. It comes to represent a rally point of sorts for the rest of my trip, a source of delicious nourishment that can be visited at nearly any hour, day or night.
“Night” is a relative term in Iceland. The sun doesn’t fully disappear from the sky until around 11pm, and you can start to see the light peering in only a couple of hours later; before even 3am at this time of year. There’s some sort of town square a short walk from the hot dog stand where a mobile food court magically springs up every night. You can get anything from pizza to sandwiches to waffles here, with each truck specializing in one thing or another. It’s always crowded and always delicious, and it disappears with every new day.
Day Three: EVR madness and fans partying at the top of the world
The previous evening’s keynote reveal of EVR gives way to a final day opportunity for fans to take a spin with the Oculus Rift-powered multiplayer tech demo. CCP sets up 12 Oculus stations in a distant corner of the Harpa, and the crowded line moves at a brisk pace as a rhythm develops of one group playing a four-minute session while an on-deck one receives a rapid-fire control tutorial. Everyone is excited. This is the first time that most will get to try the Rift for themselves, and they’re stoked.
A few coin-op arcade machines sit close to the EVR line. A side-scrolling EVE Offline arcade machine plays like a high-res take on Gradius. There’s also an EVE Mining Simulator machine that appears to be some kind of MAME emulator, though I can’t get close enough to verify it. Next to that is a Super Mario Bros. pinball game. These folks are fanatical about EVE Online, but they still speak and appreciate the broader language of video games.
Let’s also take a moment to talk about the Harpa. The massive concert/event space looks from the outside like a Frank Gehry-designed spaceship. It is a perfect home for EVE FanFest, and was in fact built largely because CCP’s ever-growing annual event got to a point where it could no longer house all attendees at its previous location.
It feels a bit out of place when you first see it, this hulking monument to future-world architecture right smack in the middle of a European city that is largely characterized by anything but. Really though, is there anything more perfect for CCP’s yearly fan gathering than this unmoving glass spaceship of a building?
The final day concludes with what has become a yearly tradition: the Party at the Top of the World. The event’s name comes from the fact that Reykjavik is the northernmost capital of a sovereign nation. Special thanks to CCP CMO David Reid for pointing out that little factoid.
After three full days of talking, asking, and arguing over the future of EVE Online, Dust 514, and all things CCP, fans gather together with developers at the Harpa to party as booze flows freely and live bands occupy the spaces that previously hosted various talks and panels. The headliner this year is DJ Z-Trip, an American mash-up master, making his first trip to the island nation.
The energy runs high during Z-Trip’s hour-plus set, which kicks off late in the evening, well after the sun has gone down but before it has started to rise again. The DJ is a newcomer to the EVEverse, but he’s crafted a special set for this crowd. Footage from EVE and other games plays on two different screens while fan-friendly music – including the excellent CCP rap “Harden the Fuck Up” – mixes together with universally loved classics. Everything from Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” spins as the crowd parties along in time.
It’s definitely a mixed group. The fans are here in force of course, but so too are locals lucky enough to have scored one of the apparently highly coveted concert tickets. Also mixed in with everyone is the CCP top brass. Corporate chiefs, creative leads, production leads, QA leads, all of their various support crews… everyone. And every last one of them is a rock star here. Fans flock to them and treat them all like old friends. I’ve never seen any fan gathering quite like it in the world of video games.
That’s where we conclude this recap. It’s 3am and the sun is starting to brighten the clouds on the distant horizon. I’m strolling back to my hotel from the Harpa to drop my camera off before a nearby after-party carries me into the pre-dawn hours when inspiration strikes. It’s time for a hot dog. It won’t be my last though. I’ll be back next year.
These games really aren’t doing anything fundamentally different. Yes, both are driven by admittedly fresh ideas in the realm of social features, community, economy, and player agency. Ultimately, however, you’re left with an MMO and an FPS. I’ll play the games because I love video games, same as it ever was. It’s the people that will bring me back. This is a community that I want to be better acquainted with. I want to backstab and nitpick with them, and I want to revel in putting all of that aside when we all get together for the yearly party.
Also, the hot dogs. Those are some damn good hot dogs.
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